Epic Christmas Road Trip: Takin’ it Easy from Colorado to Arizona

When you think of Route 66, it likely conjures up images of convertible Cadillacs with their tops down, sunshine and summer tunes on the car radio. Our road trip looked a little different as we made the trip in a Toyota Tacoma, during the winter, with Audible. 

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We were heading to my parents’ house for Christmas, and a new truck plus the fact that flying during the holidays is the ultimate hassle led to our decision to drive the 14-hour route from Colorado to Phoenix via I25 to Route 66. We came home via Hwy 10 from Tucson to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and then north on I25.

Day One, 631 Miles  

We started our cruise down I25 with the aim of hitting Trinidad, Colorado for lunch. This Southern Colorado town is a favorite in part because it has stunning architecture and great food. We ended up at Nana & Nano Monteleone’s Deli & Pasta House, a tradition in Trinidad since 1949.

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In addition to an Italian restaurant, there are shelves in the deli full of things like homemade tomato sauce and hot salsa, because this is Southern Colorado where spicy food reigns supreme. We ate yummy sandwiches and got back on the road but not before I loaded up on salsa (red and green) for Christmas in Phoenix with my parents. That’s just one of the benefits of driving instead of flying; you can buy all the things along the way and pack as much as you’d like.

We were nearing Albuquerque around dusk, so my first glimpse of Route 66 was in the dark, which meant it felt like a highway home to a line of brightly lit casinos. Later, in Arizona, it became home to Indian Market after Indian Market.

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The original Route 66 was established in 1926 and was one of the first highways in the US Highway System. It started in California and ended in Illinois but as time passed the road underwent a lot of changes. You can still drive some parts of the original highway but for the most part, cars now travel on the new Route 66. Learn more about the story of historic Route 66 by browsing Historic66.com.

Sleep where long-dead celebrities slept

I’d booked no hotels for this trip so we were winging it along the way. In Gallup, we ended up at El Rancho Hotel, a property that feels straight out of a different decade, one long, long ago.

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A ginormous Christmas tree graced the lobby as does a floor to ceiling rock fireplace that was not lit despite the cold outside. It’s quite an entrance and it’s not hard to see the former glory of the place which has, through the years, welcomed celebrities and politicians.

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We didn’t indicate that we wanted a non-smoking room because it didn’t occur to us that places still have smoking rooms, so of course, we ended up in a smoking room. We asked to be moved and ended up in a bigger room with two beds and a small bathroom and the switch was made.  Our room was a total of $119.

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On the upper landing of El Rancho, hundreds of celebrity photographs line the walls. It feels a bit like a museum and it’s obvious that this place was once a hip and happening spot for the jet-setting class. The likes of Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Jane Fonda and many more have laid their heads in El Rancho’s beds.

The best Mexican food in America

Dinner was at Jerry’s Cafe, a place that Ryan had been dying to take me to since road tripping through earlier in the year. He’d made a business trip to Phoenix with some furniture in tow and had stopped in Gallup for lunch and hadn’t stopped talking about Jerry’s Cafe since.

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The restaurant serves up the best Mexican food I’ve tasted, and I’ve had a lot of Mexican food. If I had to live on one type of food for the rest of my life it would be Mexican. The place isn’t fancy and doesn’t serve alcohol. I had the stuffed sopapilla smothered in green chile and it was heaven on a plate.

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We stuffed ourselves while Native American children hocked their wares to diners. Ryan, who is a sucker for salespeople, especially if they are kids, bought handmade arrows from a Native American boy who had made them. Table-to-table sellers are not uncommon in this part of New Mexico, but they quickly move on if you are uninterested.

Back at El Rancho, we were tired but decided to have a drink in the 49ers Lounge. The hotel has a bar, restaurant and gallery selling Native American art. We sat at the bar, between artwork of a topless girl and an inebriated man who was talking and singing to himself.

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This seemed to be more of a locals bar than a tourist destination but we were happy to find a few nice tequilas on the shelf. I became obsessed with the stained glass images on the walls and proceeded to take a photo of each one. The 49ers Lounge looks like the perfect party bar and people were streaming in to dance music being spun by the DJ but we were exhausted and after one drink we returned to the hotel and climbed the stairs to our room. 

Day Two, 321 Miles

The next day, a Sunday, we had a difficult time finding a breakfast spot that was open early on a Sunday. We landed at Earl’s Diner, circa 1947. Open at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays, breakfast consisted of a breakfast sandwich for me and a waffle and bacon for Ryan.

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I do not discriminate. All chiles should be saved.

We hit the road with every intention of making it to my parents’ house with plenty of time left in the day, but that didn’t happen.

Hiking in a closed national park

Ryan was determined to drive through the Petrified Forest National Park, just a few miles across the Arizona border. This was at the beginning of the government shutdown so we couldn’t drive into the park which was being guarded by a park ranger in a truck. We watched him chase down a vehicle that tried to enter despite the sign. 

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The park was shut down, however, we could visit the Visitors Center and take a hike to see the Painted Desert. This forced exercise of a three-mile hike was just what we needed. We hiked from the Visitors Center to the Painted Desert Inn which is no longer a functioning inn. The place is perched on the edge of the Painted Desert affording views that cannot be found anywhere else.

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The clouds raced across the sky during our visit so that our view of the Painted Desert shifted between sunny and well-lit to dark and shadowy. It made the desert a beautiful canvas of changing color and it also meant we were taking on and off our coats as the temperature continually changed.

Standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona

My parents spent a great deal of time listening to, singing and playing The Eagles when I was a child, so after being distracted for a while by the Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona, we stopped in Winslow, Arizona. We went there for lunch but also to stand on the corner like silly tourists. As it turns out, I am a rather silly tourist.

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Winslow, Arizona is worth the stop even if you aren’t a fan of The Eagles (God, forbid). The original Route 66 goes right through town so at this point we were actually traveling on the real Route 66. Winslow, Arizona is also worth the stop for RelicRoad Brewing Company.

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Located on the famous road, this brewery serves up fantastic food and has a broad selection of local beer from Arizona and nearby states. They are looking for a location to start brewing their own beer in Winslow.

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I had the tacos and Ryan had the Reuben, both delicious choices and if we’re ever back in Winslow, we will eat and drink at RelicRoad Brewing Company again.

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After lunch, we stood on the corner. It’s a big deal here because it’s not a typical street corner. A Route 66 sign is painted on the road and the corner is home to an old flatbed Ford, a “Take it Easy” inspired mural and statues of Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey.

We also went into several stores that are obviously there to take full advantage of the town’s “Take it Easy” fame. In The Take it Easy Store we bought a few touristy things and met one of the nicest locals ever. She was working behind the register and might have been the store’s owner. She had grown up in Winslow and was the best representative of her town.

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The tourism board of Arizona should give her an award for being such a great advocate of all things Winslow. She told us about a September car show that’s worth a trip back to this town. During the event, the original Route 66 is lined with classic cars and I bet that corner gets a lot of action.

A very, very, very large hole in the ground

The store clerk in Winslow convinced Ryan to see Meteor Crater which is a few miles out of town along the new Route 66 and directly on our way to Phoenix. Therefore, we went to see this hole in the ground. For $18, you can say, “I’ve seen a very large hole in the ground.”

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A bit pricey but it’s a big hole. In fact, it is a huge hole. Plus, the facilities are nice and you get to see part of the meteor that made the gigantic hole. It’s a roadside attraction that comes with bragging rights and Ryan was like a kid in a candy store (well, perhaps more like a kid at an enormous hole in the ground), but either way, he was quite happy that we stopped.

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Yes, I had to use the Thesaurus to find other words that mean large.

After taking in the gigantic crater, we made a bee-lined to Phoenix. The sun was setting as we flew down Interstate 17. Hundreds of cactus on the hills around us were backlit by a flaming orange sky. I may or may not have taken 1000 pictures, three of which are any good.

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Day 3-4, 0 Miles

My parents retired to Arizona from Oregon in October 2017. It’s a big change for everyone. For them, they get to see the sunshine every day, for me, I no longer get to visit the ocean every Christmas. While I do not get fresh Dungeness crab, I do enjoy eating oranges off their trees and sitting on their patio on Dec. 24 enjoying coffee on a 70-degree morning.

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We are all getting adjusted to Arizona but the best part is that I don’t have to get on a plane to see them. At times throughout the year (not Christmas), flights between Denver and Phoenix are super cheap, but the road trip is doable and has loads of good Mexican food along the way, and a very big hole in the ground.

Day 5, 447 Miles

While at my parents’ house, we considered and reconsidered which way to go home since there was a big storm coming. Going through Tucson was a little farther, but we would avoid any passes and end our day in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a hot springs town. We decided hot springs were worth an extra two hours, as was being on a new-to-us road, plus, Ryan wanted to see the airplane graveyard in Tucson.

Where planes go to die

We headed back out on the open road, although through Phoenix it was a crowded road. Ryan has an Air Force family, and they have connections to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base located in Tucson. He fondly remembers visiting the “Boneyard” when he was just a kid and he was determined to go back.

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It turns out that you cannot simply drive onto an Air Force base, as we were kindly told by a camo-wearing guard with a gun at one of the entrances of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. I assume he talks to a lot of tourists like us, who are looking for the “Boneyard.”

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You can see the Boneyard through the fence along E. Escalante Blvd. and then south along S. Kobe Road before the embankment impedes the view. The Boneyard consists of acres and acres of rows and rows of all sorts of different planes that are no longer in use. There are so many planes here that it’s overwhelming; big ones, little ones, fighter jets and more. 

I assume if you have family that is active military at the base, you may be able to get up close and personal with the planes in the Boneyard, but if not, you’ll have to gaze from afar and through a fence.

A windy & surprisingly scenic drive

The scenery along Interstate 10 surprised me. It was much more dynamic than the desert I had expected. There are a number of mountainous areas to the south, and while they aren’t the Rocky Mountains, the clouds swirled around them in fantastic formations that captured my imagination. The Chiricahua Mountains were glorious and I took a bunch of “out the window” shots with my camera and phone.

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The howling wind was the main feature of the day and responsible for the weirdly magical cloud art that haunted our drive along I10. When we stopped for gas at one point, in a tiny town with a name I can’t recall, the wind nearly tore the doors off the truck.

We had an unremarkable lunch in Benson, with a lot of other people on their way home from Christmas visits with family. My regret about this stop was that we didn’t have time to drive 30 minutes south to Tombstone, Arizona. And, a good friend who lives in Chandler, Arizona loves Bisbee, which is just 26 minutes south of Tombstone. Obviously, this is an area I’d love to visit someday in the future.

There’s a reason they call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment.

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A “must-stop” because, green chiles

Alas, we were on a mission, in part, to get home. At Hwy 26 we headed north and made a quick stop in Hatch, New Mexico. Even though the sun was setting, almost everything was closed and the weather was frightfully cold, I had to stop in Hatch. Green chiles and jalapenos are my life. Meals without one or the other are hardly worth eating.

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Hatch is a place I’ve been hearing about for many years, so we stopped at the first market we saw and while it seemed half-open, we were able to buy a couple frozen bags of chile and a red chile wreath that’s hanging from my front door. By the way, I made green chile when we got home and it was burn-your-face off hot. They grow them spicy in Hatch. 

The Thing that never was

One roadside attraction that we did not see was The Thing, but we saw a boatload of signs for this weird object that’s, according to Wikipedia, supposedly a mummified mother and child, but in actuality was created by Homer Tate for sideshows. If you drive Hwy 10, you’ll see many billboards for The Thing, so if you go, let me know how it is.

A town with a funny name

The town of Truth or Consequences seems like a place on the verge of a renaissance. I use the word “seems” because there are a couple of relatively new destinations in town, but there are a lot of unused buildings too. It would make a good HeidiTown story all on its own and I want to go back to discover more of what Truth or Consequences is all about. 

Riverbend Hot Springs looked like a good spot to stay as we planned to soak there but of course, this popular destination was full. If you want to stay, book well ahead of time because they don’t have a lot of rooms.

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We ended up at Rocket Inn and this remodeled “Green Vintage Motor Lodge” is picture perfect for a road trip. The inn has the retro feel of a motor lodge and has been updated to please today’s discriminating traveler. We paid around $80 for a one-night stay here and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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There’s a brewery in town, so we had to get a pint. Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. was hopping when we arrived. It felt like everyone in town was there and many people had brought in pizza. Me Gusta World Street Food is an intriguing food truck that’s at the brewery occasionally but we missed it. We had several delicious beers and I believe this brewery is a must-stop for beer lovers traveling through this tiny town.

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For dinner, we shared a steak at Los Arcos Steak & Lobster. This restaurant has been a staple in Truth or Consequences since 1970, and it is everything a steakhouse should be, especially one in the middle of New Mexico that’s 46-years-old. We sat in the bar because the main restaurant was full of holiday parties. Our meal was delicious and our steak was cooked to perfection. Los Arcos definitely felt like a slice of Americana in the heart of the southwest.

Day 6, 644 Miles 

After a good night’s sleep at Rocket Inn, we headed over for a morning soak at Riverbend Hot Springs. Morning soaks are the best and I’d highly recommend them here as the hot springs are located along the Rio Grande River. The river water sparkles as the sun rises in the east, making this an ideal a.m. hot springs location, although I bet sunsets are wondrous too.

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Adult’s only with a policy of whispers-only, Riverbend Hot Springs is a retreat from the world. During our one-hour visit, Minnow the cat soaked up love from us and various other strangers. After all, we were all there for her, right?

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As a bird nerd, I would have loved to see a hawk hunting along the river but I missed this sight as well as his dive-bomb to catch a silvery fish. I did hear about it from my husband and I did see several hawks and blue herons. This is a destination hot springs in New Mexico that seamlessly flows into nature and its popularity is understandable. 

After our 50 minute soak, we were heading north. We had 600 miles in front of us, but this trip had an unexpected twist. First, it had snowed in Albuquerque and the city was beautiful under a fresh blanket of white.

Walt and Vic lived here & it’s not Wyoming

Second, we stopped for lunch at Johnnie’s Kitchen in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Longmire is one of my favorite television shows of all-time, and despite being set in Wyoming, I knew it had actually been filmed in New Mexico. However, I didn’t realize it was filmed in Las Vegas until that day. I thought the town was fascinating so I googled it during lunch only to discovered Longmire was filmed here; I was giddier than Ryan at the big hole in the ground.

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In Las Vegas, you can actually see the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Office that sits on the town square in the fictional town of Durant, Wyoming. With snow coming and a drive ahead of us, we did a quick walk around the park that appears in many episodes of the show and I took the obligatory tourist photos with the Sheriff’s Office door. The grin on my face was there for days. We took a look inside The Plaza Hotel and then hit the road again.

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You can bet your last dollar that we’ll be back for a stay in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The town has a fascinating history that includes two downtowns. It also has an interesting connection with Hollywood beyond Longmire as “No Country for Old Men” was filmed in the area and the cast stayed at The Plaza Hotel. Other movies have been filmed here including “Red Dawn” and “Easy Rider,” among others. 

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After Las Vegas, we didn’t stop except for gas in Trinidad, Colorado. We could smell and see that a storm was brewing and we wanted to be home.

To write that we were tired when we arrived home around 8 or 9 that evening would be a severe understatement. We had time for soup, cat cuddles and sleep. Don’t worry, we had a pet sitter who checked in on the cat daily. He is the spoiled only child.

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Would I recommend a road trip like this? Absolutely! It helps if you have a person in the family who likes to drive, and Ryan is the perfect road trip companion. He loves to drive and he doesn’t mind my occasional scream to “stop here” because I need a photo. He is also a fan of roadside attractions and was disappointed that there were some we had to miss like The Thing, the Very Large Array and Pie Town, to name a few.

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The fact is, road trips are the ideal way to experience the western United States. I am extremely proud to be from the west and traveling its roads makes me feel even more connected to the story of the west. I love the open roads, wigwam hotels, green chiles, miles of mountains, wind, and yes, even the large hole in the ground.

6 Comments


  1. Wow. I totally want to follow in your footsteps or tire tracks. Will your parents mind if I come for a visit 😉

    Reply

  2. We love road trips, too. Luck for me, Scott also loves to drive and lets me take pics. I want to do this and stop everywhere you did…except for the big hole in the ground. Let’s not tell him about that. ; D

    Reply

    1. Oh, he’ll find out about the hole in the ground! There are signs and people in Winslow, where you will want to stop, will tell him about the hole. It’s inevitable that he will learn about the big hole in the ground!

      Reply

  3. How big was the hole? There are quite a few hot springs in N.M I hear. Looks very peaceful.

    Reply

  4. Big, very big. Large, I’d say. Quite large. 🙂

    And yes, doing a bunch of NM hot springs is a dream of mine. However, I think I visited the best spot to soak in NM first, so it all might be downhill from here. Although Ojo in Santa Fe is supposed to be very nice.

    Reply

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